In the Mediterranean basin, rice is cultivated over an area of 1,300,000 hectares. The most important rice-producing countries are Italy and Spain in Europe (72% of the EU production; 345,000 ha), and Egypt and Turkey among the extra-EU countries (almost totality of the production; 789,000 ha). Traditionally, rice is grown under continuous flooding; thus, it requires much more irrigation than non-ponded crops. On the other hand, rice is strategic for food security in some countries (Egypt), and human consumption in the whole Mediterranean is steadily increasing.
The project aims at exploring sustainability of innovative irrigation options, in order to reduce rice water consumption and environmental impacts, and to extend rice cultivation outside of traditional paddy areas to meet the escalating demand. The MEDWATERICE consortium includes universities, research centres and private companies operating in the Mediterranean area (IT, ES, PT, EG, TR, IL). Case studies will be conducted in pilot farms of the countries involved in the project. Alternative irrigation methods to be tested will be tailored to local conditions using a participatory action research approach through the establishment of Stake-Holder Panels (SHPs) in each country, which will include regional authorities, water managers, farmers’ associations and consultants, and private companies of the rice production chain. For each irrigation solution, innovative technologies and the most appropriate rice varieties and agronomic practices will be adopted to minimize impacts on yield quantity and quality. Data collected at the farm level will be extrapolated to the irrigation district level to support water management decisions and policies. Indicators for quantitative assessment of environmental, economic and social sustainability of the irrigation options will be defined.
Outcomes generated by MEDWATERICE are aimed at injecting tailored and updated knowledge to improve the sustainability of rice production in the countries of the Mediterranean area, with particular attention to the adoption of water-saving techniques. The MEDWATERICE consortium believes that the main barriers/obstacles to the achievement of the expected impacts are the economic sustainability of the proposed innovations and their social acceptance. For this reason, the project will: carry out an overall sustainability assessment of the irrigation solutions (including the economic dimension); be developed in close cooperation with the SHPs in all the project’s phases, to improve the communication among all the actors involved and the transfer of project’s results to the agricultural sector and decision makers; include the preparation and dissemination of technical best practice documents to support the effective implementation of irrigation solutions.
WP1 (project management) and WP6 (SHs involvement and dissemination of results) are transversal. WP1 will ensure the achievement of project objectives, optimizing organization and timing of activities. WP6 will be devoted to set up the Stake-Holder Panels (SHPs), the basis of the participatory action research approach adopted by the project. SHPs will integrate all the key actors: farmers, farmers’ associations, water resources managers and policy makers, consultancy companies and private enterprises working in the rice irrigation and production/processing chains. SHPs will participate in all the project phases, with particular prominence in the dissemination of project outcomes. Moreover, WP6 will be devoted to the dissemination of MEDWATERICE outcomes, through the project website updated with regular news, best practice documents to support farmers in the implementation of alternative irrigation solutions, and targeted project outreach workshops, reports and publications.
WP2 will focus on water saving technologies at farm scale. A common research strategy will be coordinated by the WP leader and implemented in all CSs under the control of the respective SHPs. Activities will include collection of existing data, diagnosis of major problems affecting rice production in each country, and identification and test of alternative water saving techniques tailored to local conditions. A minimum common database will ensure harmonization of data collection, comparability of results, and overall sustainability assessment. This database will include: agro-climatic data, soil physico-chemical properties, groundwater levels, irrigation water quality, field water balance components, and crop yield. Specific environmental issues (salinity, pesticides fate, greenhouse gas emissions, and reuse of treated wastewater) will be investigated in targeted CSs.
Outcomes of WP2 will have value by themselves, although they will be used also to upscale the effect of on-farm water saving technologies to the irrigation district level (WP3), to quantify the impact of these technologies on food security and safety (WP4), and for the sustainability assessment to be carried out under WP5. District upscaling will be based on existing information and the application of modelling tools, although it will vary among CSs depending on data availability and professional capacity of the respective water user’s associations. Simple heuristic models will be used where data is limited, while functional hydrological models with physical basis will be applied in districts where data have been systematically collected in the past.
Outputs from WP2 and WP3 will be used as inputs of WP4 to assess the impact of innovative rice water saving techniques on food security in Egypt, while outputs from WP2 will be used in WP4 to assess the effect on food safety of the irrigation options tested in all CSs (arsenic and cadmium accumulation in rice grains will be quantified in all CSs, additional analysis will be conducted in the case of use of treated effluent from municipal wastewater for rice irrigation).
The sustainability assessment of rice production in Mediterranean areas (WP5) will be based on the selection and application of the most appropriate set of techno-economic, social and environmental impact indicators to the CSs. At the ‘farm-gate’, techno-economic indicators will be related to the ‘farm economic balance’. To assess environmental impacts, a ‘farm-gate Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)’ approach will be adopted; however, an integration to the set of LCA indicators will be proposed to better account for biodiversity maintenance and groundwater recharge issues. SHPs will be consulted to identify common indicators with respect to the social acceptability of innovations in agriculture. Regarding the irrigation district spatial level, the set of indicators will be adapted to assess the sustainability of solutions at this scale. At this level, techno-economic indicators related to the modernization of irrigation schemes shall be considered, and social acceptability of of solutions will be investigated considering opinions of irrigation water managers and policy makers.
For each MEDWATERICE Case Study, a tailored SHP (Stake-Holder Panel) is set-up to facilitate and strengthen the involvement of the main target groups within the project, improving the chance of success of dissemination/exploitation activities. In particular, subjects listed in the following table are directly involved in the experimental/demo activities and in the dissemination and exploitation of project outcomes through their participation in the SHPs.